Published on May 15th, 2020 | by Noah Dimitrie0
Car Seat Headrest – Making A Door Less Open
Will Toledo is back with fresh material. This time, he’s not settling for the same old Car Seat Headrest. But do his band’s reinventions work?
Making a Door Less Open is a perfect title for Car Seat Headrest. Will Toledo and co. have thus far made a name for themselves through these kinds of cheeky turns of phrase. The kind that evoke an over-stuffed sense of irony. The kind that tap into a frumpy cynicism that sounds so relatable coming from Toledo’s throaty voice. This particular title feels especially timely as the band releases their fourth album off of Matador. As per the tastes of CSH’s fanbase, they had no choice but to “make a door less open” and specify their sound—not so much reinventing themselves as much as disciplining themselves. The band wears its obligation on its sleeve to move into unexplored instrumental territory yet still manage to keep their heads above water. It’s as if there’s some kind of imperative floating out there in the cultural ether that they evolve yet simultaneously stay exactly the same. This kind of thing is commonly sensed by a lot of rock bands, yet, given the charming but parody-able niche that CSH has carved out for itself in the last decade, the pressure feels especially present. You can practically see it wafting off of this record, the desperation to be different–signified, if anything, by the uncharacteristically dark, moody album cover. But desperation doesn’t necessarily indicate unwieldy results.
Much like the title, the album weaves a quasi-paradox; it is structured as a disjointed but strangely poetic dichotomy, more so clumsily arranged and contrived than it is non-sensical. If “making a door less open” is a convoluted way of saying a very simple thing, this album purposely beats around the bush in roughly the same way. Its got a pretty straightforward conceit, both lyrically and melodically; the album is a typical update on the adventures of Will Toledo’s continued experience with smarm and self-deprecation; this time with an emphasis on maturing through fame and success. However, it’s now punctuated by a healthy dose of electronic music and dance punk. LCD Soundsystem by way of a nerdy hipster with glasses—oh wait.
The rousing punk instrumentation is still present, but certain mixtures work better than others. Overall, it still feels safely secure within the band’s paradigm; they’re still ultimately just facilitating Will’s persona and he definitely gets to have his say. It’s more the execution of these changes into a full album experience that fall flat. Like I said: it’s a solid variation on a simple theme that has a little too much of a chip on its shoulder. It kicks off with “Weightlifters,” which does not strike me as entirely coincidental. It’s probably the most old school CSH song on the album; a steady beta male anthem in which “I should start lifting weights” and “If thoughts could change your body” are the relatable hooks. But the newfound predilection for straightforward danceability is still realized with drum-machine loops that steer it into synthetic, studio-driven territory.
Then the lead single, “Can’t Cool Me Down,” naturally fires up and removes any doubt you might have in your mind; this is fully a dance record with indie rock vocals, as opposed to the band’s usual intersection: rock record with punk vocals. The band’s overall abrasion is kicked down a peg, and while that comes with its blind spots and awkward moments on “Can’t Cool Me Down,” the song shows an admirable perseverance of identity. It’s a grower, not a shower, but it definitely still “rocks.” Toledo’s suffocated, fatigued intensity propels it forward and its repetitive hooks finally dig into your skin. But it’s an undeniable litmus test for fans early in the record. You either get behind the album’s stellar foundation or you reject all its surface-level renovations. “Deadlines (Hostile) switches it back to the old school game plan for a second. Boasting some catchy moments and solid production, it’s a fine guitar track but relatively forgettable. And it doesn’t help the symptoms of schizophrenia the album has, triggering the start of a vexing Jekyll and Hyde routine.
It’s the next track with which I really have a bone to pick. “Hollywood,” a single released a couple weeks ago, plays even worse in the context of the full album. It’s a strange juxtaposition of Toledo’s patented mumbling and drummer Andrew Katz’ scratchy screaming, both of which sound fine on their own but when superimposed on one another sound downright emblematic of this album’s identity crisis. “Hollywood makes me want to puke,” is kind of the lamest thing you can say in the world like ever, right? Am I the only one who is baffled by this sudden lack of lyrical nuance and personality? The band that is best known for their idiosyncratic but brutally honest lyrics must’ve let their bong-ripping, college freshmen dopplegangers play a cut on the record.
The grating guitars would be fine if it were an actual punk song. Instead, it sounds like a bad imitation of Black Flag done by some frat guys at USC. On a macro note, it depletes the album’s sense of direction, which up to that point had its twists and turns but still was united by a through line of intense malaise and candidly faux confidence. This track just sends the whole album to a grinding halt with its broadness. Which explains why it needs a nifty little electronic interlude to wipe the slate clean afterwards.
The last half of the album works much better as a whole. The band really settle into a groove after “Martin,” reminds everyone what made CSH so damn charming in the first place. Toledo pines along with someone named Justin, which is just the weird kind of plot hole you expect from a band like this. The soft but forlorn track goes something like, “And when I’m high on things that bug me/The morning news and instant coffee/I’ll forget, and forget, and remember.” Toledo shows he can be insightful by showing without telling, evoking without being heavy-handed. This makes “Hollywood” and even more bitter pill to swallow, but I digress.
“Deadlines (Thoughtful) is probably the most successful dance/rock hybrid on the album. It comes in with a thick, club-friendly beat and as it picks up steam, it doesn’t look back. Its remarkably assured of itself than a lot of the other electronic bells and whistles scattered throughout the album. Toledo’s vocals mesh well, despite it refusing to surrender to the conventions of his typical comfort zone. It hits you with a grimy little gut punch, and quite effectively proves their point about diversifying the meaning of the phrase “rock music.” If only more of the album had its swagger.
“Life Worth Missing” and “There Must Be More Than Blood” are among the band’s finest achievements. They are accessible but well-contained within the framework of the album’s overall production style. Out of all the tracks on the album, they most convincingly illustrate the potential for the band’s unique convergence of genres. They feel very “classic CSH” but also feel new and evolved. Polished may be the best descriptor. Unlike the lo-fi fuzziness the band used to revel in, they have taken their impressionistic elements and given them a shiny but modest coat of paint. Still catchy and distant and aching, the tracks are just more structurally sound, remodeled from the previous approach in which songs felt as though the wheels could come off at any second. Seth Dalby’s base playing is weighty but crystal clear and all that guitar-static is present but contained. Synths play their part but don’t feel arbitrarily forced. Both songs are moving and well-fleshed out. They show real growth.
“Famous” finishes off this bewildering but unignorable journey. It’s a pretty solid clincher to finish off the band’s argument. And that’s what this album is when you boil it down—a kind of essay, a meta-critique. Like a self-evaluation you’re forced to do at work. CSH found themselves in a position of transition, of course-correcting. One gets the sense that they always wanted to be this band but just now are scrambling to make up for lost time. A great band is present within Making a Door Less Open, but it shows too many growing pains and stretch marks. It’s a great band figuring it out as they go along. Some of it works, some of it doesn’t. Overall, it doesn’t quite satisfy the same as their previous albums because it comes with some assembly required. But if you give it a shot, you can learn a lot from a band that is searching. And there is something kind of triumphant about that searching on the tracks where the band do seem to find inspiration.